According to Desmond MacCarthy (he was one of Waugh's earliest admirers), ""a biographer is an artist upon oath.""...



According to Desmond MacCarthy (he was one of Waugh's earliest admirers), ""a biographer is an artist upon oath."" Christopher Sykes, who was Waugh's friend as well as admirer as well as officially designated biographer with access to the until-now sealed archives, has fully upheld the dictum in an (with modesty Sykes insists not the) eminently just biography of Waugh, not only his world as in the 1973 Pryce-Jones collection of pieces, but his work. In the interests of justness, he at times fails to recruit sympathy, or lend intimacy, to his subject and the word ""blemishes"" is overused. There is a brief review of the early years and the indications of the ""chaotic disturbances"" which existed then as they would later; an early sickness which would be equally prophetic; and the religious inclination which would be confirmed with his conversion to the Church. Public school would pass more quietly than Oxford where Cyril Connolly, a persistent baiter, quipped ""Why do you have to make such a noise wherever you are."" Sykes takes comments that Waugh was always ""reticent about his virtues as he was flaunting of his vices."" We follow, for the most part chronologically, the books from Decline and Fall with its instant recognition to Vile Bodies to Handful of Dust generally regarded as his greatest although Sykes isolates Unconditional Surrender as his best book. There was the first marriage to that other Evelyn, ""She Evelyn,"" and the difficulty in securing a declaration of nullity from the Church; and then the longlasting marriage to Laura (she lacks definition here--Sykes does not attempt to tamper with her reserve); the many friendships (Nancy Mitford, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene) and enmities (Edmund Wilson, Priestley); and the ""mm and loneliness"" of his youth which would enforce the immanent unhappiness of his life and increasing despair peaking in the delusory Ordeal (autobiographically transcribed in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold). Then too there was the snobbishness or ""foolishly looking-down,"" the increasing conservativism, the touchy rancor--all to be offset by Waugh's great gifts. Equally balanced are Sykes' judgments of the books, from the necessary identifications to the final estimates. But when all is said-- can it all be said--since Waugh is an endless source of tragicomic contention who got as much as he gave (i.e., The New Statesman which commented astringently--""Waugh dearly loved a lord. Often as much as Our Lord.""). Sykes is almost too cautious but Waugh still cannot be subdued. The biography stands as the season's literary event and a work of judicious illumination. Somewhere up there Waugh would no doubt grace it with one of his favorite expressions--""He would not repine.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 1975


Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1975